Tuesday, August 19, 2014

When ‘Army Strong’ Looks Weak: memoirs of a reluctant servant leader

When ‘Army Strong’ Looks Weak:
Memoirs of a reluctant servant leader
by Deb W.
(note: this is the basic text of a speech I gave to a group of government workers recently. The intent was not to be a testimony, but instead it was considered an icebreaker.)

Introduction.
When most people meet me, they have a hard time imagining me as having retired from the Army seven years ago - with a total of 24 years in the military!

For the most part today I think I tend to be soft-spoken and a bit reserved. At work, I tend to be serious-minded and analytical. But that has not always been the case.

Today, I’d like to share a snapshot of my unique military experiences, which I believe God used as a main catalyst in developing me into the person who I am today. 

Body: Enlistment.
When I first enlisted, joining the Navy was really an act of self preservation.

I had fought so much with my parents growing up, that I was kicked out at the age of 18.

So, I was trying to work full-time, go to college, and maintain a social life while renting a studio apartment. But I was failing miserably on all fronts.

College frustrated me because I chose based on what would pay the most after graduation. But I hated computer science.

Work was a means to an end and that end was my party life. And the party scene was taking me places I never expected. I knew if I didn't make a serious change, I’d probably get arrested or maybe end up in jail.

So, with that backdrop, at the age of 19, I landed my keister in the Navy recruiter’s office and within a couple of weeks, shipped off to Orlando, Florida for Basic Training.

I spent the better part of the 1980's in the Navy where partying, working, and training were the symbiotic ecosystem of my post-adolescent experimentation. Learning to work hard and play hard was my mantra during those years.

Blue to Green.
After six years of travel fun and meritorious achievement, my Navy tenure ended and I was ready for a new chapter.

With a few months of separation under my belt, boredom started to set in. So I ended up in an Army recruiter’s office, who essentially guaranteed me a slot in the job of my dreams if I enlisted in the Army. So, in 1990, I became an Photo Journalist in the 101st Public Affairs Detachment – the opportunity of a lifetime. I enthusiastically seized upon the opportunity as my “reason to be”.

At first, I under estimated the challenge of going from “Blue to Green” – transitioning from serving in the Navy to becoming an Army Soldier. Almost everything I learned about being a Sailor was completely different from being in the Army!

But I did what it took to graduate in the top of my class from most of my Army professional development courses. Somehow, this naïve, self-absorbed, misguided, post-adolescent grew up in the Army and became an NCOIC (non-commissioned officer-in-charge).

Being in Public Affairs, I almost always found myself assigned to some General officer’s staff in a high profile position, with a much greater degree of responsibility than the rank on my collar would seem to indicate. My sense of pride and self-worth was in the success and recognition I’d find in assignments all around the globe: Italy, Panama, Japan, Germany, Kosovo, Normandy, Belgium, and Turkey. The windows and doors of opportunity being opened to me seemed like they would never end.

By the time I reached the rank of Sgt. First Class, E-7, all of these roles and opportunities started to feel bland and boring. The most exciting job I could have ever imagined had become dull and passé to me. So, I sought out even more challenges and ways to become influential and powerful.

Green to Gold.
As I listened to the voices of the recruiters once again, they assured me that becoming a commissioned officer would be the golden ticket to the influence and acknowledgement that I was craving. At that time, I idolized officers and had this fairy-tale image of how they lived glamorous and privileged lives, while at the same time holding the power needed to change everything.

So, when the 9/11 tragedy hit our country, I was more than primed to embark upon the great “Green to Gold” Army tradition and enrolled in Officer Candidate School. The lessons I would learn from my time training and serving as a military officer are not written in anyone’s textbooks. Chief among them was the lesson of humility.

"Lower than worm poop" is what they called us. That was the title I put on after taking off my chevrons. Every former NCO who descends from the enlisted leadership ranks to the training ground of the future commissioned officer undergoes this transition. But it took me longer and quite a bit of more emotional pain to concede. The process simply made no sense to me.

Why would becoming an officer entail such an excruciating surrender of pride? Isn’t pride the whole point of why I wanted to be an officer in the first place? To be the best? The brightest? The strongest? The smartest?

The humbling process was more difficult for me than any of my classmates. On my LES (leave and earnings statement), I still outranked most of my drill instructors, but now I had to submit to their commands, no matter how much I agreed or disagreed. Plus, I had always enjoyed the privilege of “having the General’s ear” before, but now, it was nothing more than ‘suck it up’ and ‘do as you’re told’ – ugh!.

In retrospect, officer training taught me more about the art of leadership than anything I had ever learned before. It was just so much different than I had envisioned it.

Putting on Pure Gold.
When I graduated from officer training, all of my close relatives came to my graduation. Which is saying something, since as you might remember, I was disowned and kicked out when I was 18. This was a monumental experience for me.

I won’t go into all of the details and assignments that I had over the six years that I served as an officer, other than to say that I had two company commands (one as acting commander, the other was on official orders) by the time I was promoted to Captain. The pride that I had in serving in those commands had very little to do with pride in myself, but rather it was the pride I had for the Army and every Soldier under my charge.

Through this process I learned that everyone is uniquely qualified to contribute to the unit’s success, while at the same time acknowledging that everyone is fighting a battle I couldn't even see. The former taught me to protect the inherent dignity of all people and the latter allowed me to show compassion and understanding even when they inevitably let me down.

Conclusion: I had finally learned and could see what the officers before me had done to facilitate my growth and development. Being an effective leader is not all about the getting the glory and changing the world. It’s about being available at any given moment to use my influence and knowledge to open doors and windows of opportunity for those I might serve. 

So, if I seem soft-spoken and restrained to you in how I present myself today, I hope you understand a little better that there is more to me than meets the eye. 

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